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Reconciling the irreconcilable in British Columbia

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Some of the New Democratic Party's most impressive elected people are from British Columbia. They form much of the core of the current federal caucus. And (like their federal cousins) the provincial party has been rebuilding successfully from a nadir. They now have a similarly impressive team.

Recent events in that province therefore sadden New Democrats across Canada. In the cause of offering British Columbians an alternative to dumb-on-just-about-everything conservative government at both the federal and provincial levels, it is greatly to be wished that differences be composed in a way that is widely accepted and agreed.

While Canadian progressives of good heart cross their fingers and hope that happens, what are those of us unlucky enough to live on the wrong side of the Rockies to make of recent political events in both the Liberal and New Democratic parties on the right side of them?

These events demonstrate how so much in politics is about elegantly reconciling the seemingly-irreconcilable. Some of the cross-pressure is hardwired into the Canadian parliamentary system, as it has evolved over the past hundred years. I am thinking here of the triangular relationship between elected caucuses, political parties and leaders.

Start with the caucus

Nothing really important happens in any Canadian political party without the ultimate agreement of its caucus of elected MPs or provincial legislators. This is almost completely invisible to Canadians most of the time, since all they get to see or read about their political system most of the time these days are exchanges of eight-word soundbites between leaders. But anyone involved in politics knows this fact well.

Few knew it better than former prime minister Brian Mulroney, for example. He weathered many long and brutal months of single-digit leadership numbers in the polls because he meticulously built his personal and political relationships within a diverse national caucus. His MPs liked him, believed in him, thought he was right on the issues, and were prepared to suspend panic and hold together. When you consider the pressures his government operated under in the back half of its mandate – whatever one thinks of the agenda being pursued – Mr. Mulroney's internal political achievement deserves to be remembered by history as a virtuoso performance by a highly skilled leader. One of his key lieutenants in this work, PC caucus whip Robert Layton, had much to teach his son, current NDP Leader Jack Layton.

In contrast, Premier Gordon Campbell collapsed after only a relatively brief spell in the single digits – and only months after winning a majority government. This speaks to more than the blood sport that is B.C. politics. It speaks to a failure to invest in the threads of solidarity and mutual support that builds a political team, and allows it to survive bad times as well as good ones.

Consider the role of the party

Other than the federal Liberals, who now appoint their leaders through murky coup d'etat, Canadian political parties have all adopted the early 20th century reformist practice of electing their leaders by vote among party members. This used to be done through the mediation of elected delegates. Most federal and provincial parties are in some form of transition to direct election by all card-carrying members. This practice – an American import into our parliamentary system – sits very poorly with the central role of caucus.

That has its benefits. Candidates for King are selected in an open and relatively accessible process. They are subjected to a national test that more closely resembles an election campaign, weeding out names who wouldn't work among voters. Pretenders have to make something like a policy pitch to all party members, instead of just demonstrating brokerage and deal-cutting skills with a relatively small number of elected MPs.

But these benefits come at a heavy price. The party hands the caucus a candidate-for-king it might not support or wish to work with. Equipped with a papal mandate from the party, leaders can be forgiven for taking the view that they are the boss, and can tell the caucus what to do whether they like it or not. A fundamental principle of parliamentary government is that the House of Commons (or the provincial legislature) can replace the government on any day, for any reason. MPs have this power over the cabinet (when Parliament is respected), but in the Canadian political system they do not have this power over their own leaders. Leader-making and unmaking is lodged in the party – which moves very, very slowly, on a clockspin and under rules fundamentally different than what might be going on in the legislature.

So then to the role of the leader

The hybrid Canadian system – British in its governance, American in its leadership politics – imposes a heavy burden on leaders to reconcile the irreconcilable. Which is, I suppose you could say, a valid test of fitness for office. Like any political system (even the pitifully dysfunctional congressional system in place in the United States) our system can be made to work – for a time, since most political careers end in tears – given the right chess moves, the right personality, and the right combination of luck and ability.

And so, even though this will drive the leader's political advisers crazy sometimes, caucuses need to be carefully consulted and heeded on most things. And so, even though this will drive potential caucus dissidents crazy sometimes, the party needs to be carefully cultivated, its tribal rituals religiously observed, and its mandate regularly renewed by the leader.

And then you need to succeed, on some measure that both the caucus and the party view as valid. This can be measured as progress towards office. It can be measured as progress on policy issues. It can be measured as fighting a good fight, even if victory is elusive and far away.

Those seem to be the rules, and as long as things go well, our hybrid system basically functions well. What we do less well is handling lack of perceived success. That is where the murky coup d'etat creeps into Canadian politics, usually to the great detriment of the parties involved.

What is to be done?

Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that elected caucuses – like their counterparts in Westminster – need to be given a more formal role in the making and unmaking of leaders. The British Labour Party, for example, votes in leaders through an electoral college that gives a large and formal role to its MPs. Not a bad idea, recent events in many Canadian parties at both the federal and provincial level might suggest. Perhaps a similar mechanism should also be in place to regularly renew – or withdraw – a leader's mandate on some schedule that meshes with the electoral calendar (shortly after each election, for example).

There is something a little medieval about this model, and its fits poorly with the atomizing American populism that got us the system we have today. But maybe it is time for us to better understand that political parties are composed of a number of empowered stakeholders, and that they are all going to have their say, one way or another.

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